India vs SA T20I series: Harmanpreet Kaur & Co return to winning ways but familiar concerns persist

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Author 2019-10-05 14:15:09

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The T20I international series against South Africa in Surat started with the Indian women in the middle of their worst losing streak in the history of the shortest format. Considering that, a 3-1 series win (with the sole defeat coming in the sixth and final T20I) is, on paper, a much-needed boost for Harmanpreet Kaur’s young side.

Having lost all the matches starting from the World T20 2018 semi-final, the Indian side did well to open their account in T20Is for the year but, with less than five months for the World Cup, familiar concerns remain.

Here’s a look at what we learned from the extended six-match series:

Batting troubles

The final match in Surat started off in celebratory fashion for Kaur. Not for the first time in her glittering career, she went where no other Indian cricketer (man or woman) had gone before: it was her 100th T20I for India. Thanks to an additional T20I in the series to compensate for the washouts, she could celebrate the special moment in front of an adoring Surat crowd with a specially embroidered cap being handed over to her by coach WV Raman. She was all smiles, as were her teammates as photographs aplenty were clicked.

But, about 40 minutes later, the smile had vanished from Kaur’s face. She was witnessing the capabilities of South Africa’s exciting batting lineup on what was the best batting pitch on offer in the past fortnight. The concern would have primarily been about how to stop the flurry of boundaries but deep down, she would have been worried about the target her batting lineup would have to chase.

Because, after every win in the series, Kaur had one consistent concern: the batters were struggling. And in the one match that the bowlers were unable to deliver, the Indian batting produced their worst performance of the series instead of stepping up. At one point on Friday night, the scoreboard read 13/6: a shocking situation on a pitch that was the closest to the flat surfaces the team will face in the T20 World Cup in South Africa.

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Smriti Mandhana arguably had the worst series in India’s colours so far, making 46 runs in four innings at a strike rate of 76.66. Shafali Verma’s hit-and-miss start to her career continued. Jemimah Rodrigues missed a straight ball first up for another soft dismissal. Harmanpreet Kaur, nursing her shoulder, chopped on to the stumps. Deepti Sharma holed out when a more steady approach was needed. And just like that, the top five were dismissed in the powerplay. It was thanks to some late resistance that India managed to cross their lowest T20I total (62).

The team has constantly struggled to put up enough runs on the board in the past year and are heavily reliant on Mandhana and Kaur to take them past even 120 in a match. Kaur, and Rodrigues to an extent, showed sparks of their abilities this series but the rest of the batting lineup struggled, albeit on difficult pitches. The series did nothing to ease India’s concerns over their willow-wielders.

Second pacer conundrum

In the bowling department, Shikha Pandey has been in good form with the new white ball in both limited overs formats for a while now, which makes the fact she was dropped for the World T20 last year feels even more bizarre in hindsight. The 30-year-old has been a curious case study since the World Cup in 2017. It has been a bit of a roller-coaster for her since, and the low was undoubtedly missing out on the World T20 squad.

But in a very short time, she has reestablished herself as the primary pace bowling weapon in the shortest format.

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That has only exacerbated India’s problem of finding her a support act.

Brought in for the final match, Mansi Joshi and Arundhati Reddy were both at the receiving end of the South Africans releasing their pent up batting frustration. And Pooja Vastrakar, perhaps understandably rusty while making a comeback after a long injury break, bowled just four overs combined in the three matches she played in. She was struggling as a fielder, had a forgettable outing with the bat and lacked the discipline with the ball. Kaur would be hoping she turns it around against West Indies because India cannot possibly go into the T20 World Cup in Australia with just one pacer in good form.

Still spin to win

The good news is that Indian spinners are still world class when the pitch has assistance. Deepti Sharma, Poonam Yadav and Radha Yadhav each had a three-for against their name during the course of the series.

The not-so-good news is that India still struggle to win matches if the spinners have a bad day, like they did on Friday in the last match of the series.

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All three spinners are still likely to feature in India’s XI in the World Cup in Australia, irrespective of the nature of the pitches and that is how it should be. Your best bowlers should be picked on the day and these three are India’s best. Deepti and Radha offer their utility in the other two departments as well and Poonam is one of the best in the world.

India will continue to rely on this trio to deliver the goods for them with the ball, considering the aforementioned worry over the pace attack.

Shafali’s promise

In all the concerns over the batting lineup, Shafali offers hope for the women in blue. With touch-players galore in the side, India needed some brute force to accompany that of captain Kaur. And the 15-year-old Indian rookie showed she has that in her game. It’s still going to take a long time for her game to develop fully but with one good innings of 46 and a couple of fearless cameos, she showed she the power game suited to modern day women’s cricket. She is fearless when it comes to hitting the aerial shots and as Kaur said after her performance in the fourth T20I, it will be good for Indian cricket if she continues that aggressive approach despite the three other low scores in the series.

Shafali Verma, India’s 15-year-old star, needed boy’s haircut to start cricket training

Two sides of the Surat coin

Let’s now get the critical stuff out of the way: the downsides of taking the game to a non-traditional center like the Lalbhai Contractor Stadium was evident on a couple of occasions in this series. The pitch was a letdown for most part and if this series was meant to help with India’s preparation for the 2020 World Cup, the typical slow-low-turning Indian track did not help one bit. And, this being the first time an international series has been held there, the lack of good drainage facilities were exposed as well when one of the matches had to be called off due to wet outfield even when there was no rain around.

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But setting aside that, the Surat crowd was absolutely sensational throughout the series; turning up in numbers even for the rained-out matches.

And it was not just the support for India that was pleasing to see (the decibel levels went up every time Kaur walked out to bat, for instance). One of the moments of the series came when the crowd applauded Lizelle Lee on her way back to the pavilion after a scintillating, career-best 84 on Friday night. The spectators showed there is a real interest in the women’s game around the country, if the administrators needed of the sport needed another reassurance.

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